Mila 18 doesn’t, by a long shot, qualify as great literature—the characterization is mostly crude, everyone inexplicably speaks in the cadence and idioms of 1950s America (“Heck!” says a teenage boy during his first romantic tryst. “This isn’t the way I figured it would be”), and the style is serviceable at best—but as a sensational yet historically accurate account of a pivotal episode in history, its value cannot be underestimated. Contemporary audiences certainly read it in droves: it became a Book of the Month selection, spent thirty-one weeks on the bestseller lists, and forced Joseph Heller to change the title of his debut novel from Catch 18 to Catch 22.
She politely writes back, and after a few more letters have been exchanged, Mapple’s reason for choosing Nothomb as a pen pal emerges. To anyone familiar with her oeuvre, it makes perfect sense: he has coped with the trauma of combat, of “rocket fire, tanks, bodies exploding next to me,” by gorging on food. Now he weighs 400 pounds: the equivalent, he points out, of carrying around a whole extra person. His fleshy double is named Scheherazade, he has decided, and when he’s in bed he likes to imagine that the female form of Scheherazade is lying over him, rather than his own immensity. “I know that you won’t judge me,” he writes to Nothomb. “You have a few obese characters in your books, and the way you portray them they never lack dignity.”
James Lasdun — author of disturbing and brilliant novel The Horned Man — had his life turned upside down when he acquired an unhinged cyberstalker who, in her words, planned to “ruin him” and almost did. Lasdun’s gripping memoir about his living nightmare, which I reviewed at The Daily Beast, is out tomorrow.
This short first marriage produced one child, a boy named Bobbie whose very existence was seen as something of a miracle. According to Fort, before her wedding night Nancy had not “comprehended the facts of life,” and following a “brief, unproductive tumult” had extracted herself from the marriage bed and fled home to her parents in a state of shock. They persuaded her to give it another try, but Nancy’s report of waking up to see Bob brandishing a chloroform sponge, evidently determined to assert his conjugal rights, aptly illustrates why their relationship was doomed.
At The Daily Beast, I reviewed Adrian Fort’s excellent new biography of Nancy Astor, a Southern Belle who, after an inadvisable teenage marriage, moved to England, married into one of the world’s richest families, and became the first woman Member of Parliament in Britain.
What no one can dispute, though, is that Plath would be thrilled to witness the intricacies of her life still drawing fascination 50 years on: More than anything else, she longed to be famous, immortal, celebrated. Hughes once complained that scholarly interest in Plath was motivated by “curiosity of quite a low order, the ordinary village kind, the bloodsport kind.” But she instinctively knew that only by taking herself as the sole subject for her art, before the term “confessional poetry” had even been coined — and way in advance of our current preoccupation with the whys and wherefores of writerly oversharing — would she attract the level of attention she craved.
She was right, of course: Not only has Plath’s small oeuvre spawned an ever-flourishing worldwide industry of biographical interpretation, but her writing so seamlessly fused self-obsession with an otherworldly gift for language that, on reading, it’s impossible to differentiate between scholarly interest and “curiosity of quite a low order” in one’s mind. This entrancing quality, this perfect, irreproducible formula of unadulterated narcissism and true genius, is what sustains her place in the spotlight just as much as the posthumously self-perpetuating Plath-Hughes soap opera.
At Salon, I wrote about the perennially compelling Plath legend, which has inspired two new biographies as The Bell Jar — and the anniversary of her suicide — turns 50.
Alice mourned the loss of her lover, and her exalted status as his mistress, but would never soften her unsentimental view that for people of her background, wedlock had nothing to do with romance. “Things were done much better in my day,” was her lofty reaction to Edward VIII’s abdication as King to marry Wallis Simpson, and she bullied her lesbian daughter, Violet, into a sham marriage. (Violet was the documented lover of Sackville-West.) Toute vérité n’est pas bonne à dire was the proverb Alice lived by: The truth is sometimes better left unsaid, a philosophy conveniently negating the need to mention that Violet was conceived not by George Keppel, but by Ernest William Beckett, 2nd Baron Grimthorpe and Alice’s paramour before Bertie.
For The New Inquiry's GOSSIP issue, I wrote about the British aristocracy’s disdain for monogamy, from the Victorians to the present. (Also from the mag: Jane Hu's jolting insights into the erudite porn of Tamara Faith Berger’s novel Maidenhead, and Sarah Nicole Prickett's collection of Encounters With Lindsay—yup, that Lindsay.)
But in our dimension’s timeline—whether it’s the darkest one is obviously not for this column to say—dear Sadie has struck out on her own, and maintained uninterrupted public notoriety with nothing but the sweat of her brow, a string of dalliances with foppish pretty boys, and regular vacations in the company of Kate Moss and the world’s paparazzi. That the raven-haired 47-year-old, whose only noteworthy acting role was in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula twenty years ago, has pulled this off is not so much remarkable as gloomily axiomatic of British society, where possessing any actual talent—outside of a gift for concisely obliterating the dreams of talent show entrants, which is God’s work—is nowadays an impediment to top-echelon fame.
Aliefka Bijlsma's new novel, The Consult General’s Wife, is a sad, funny, and eye-opening story about an aging Dutch diplomat in Brazil. At Words Without Borders, Bijlsma and I talked about topics including: her childhood spent in various different continents; the challenges of creating a character who’s different in age, sex, and temperament to yourself; and what happened when she got lost in a favela ruled by Rio’s main gang.
While the suspense is maximally exploited—whether the gorgeous, charming Professor Portecorvo is a thoroughly depraved individual or a victimized innocent is a truly intriguing puzzle—the novel is just as preoccupied with how truths and falsehoods can be perceived as slippery, or subjective, or tailored to public opinion. As defense lawyers are fond of saying, the truth is less important than the convincingness of a story, and Leo goes one step further than that. “The only true story,” he thinks in despair, “… is the one everyone will believe,” which “speaks of the moral corruption of a twelve-year-old girl by a fifty-year-old man at the peak of success.”
For her New York Times Magazine mini-column this week, Maud talks about the strange bedfellows of war and astrology, namely stargazer Miriam Binyamini’s assurance that “war does not loom between Iran and Israel,” and the wartime exploits of MI5’s spy-astrologer Louis de Wohl. At the Times' “6th Floor” blog, Maud expands on the topic, and she and I discuss de Wohl’s participation in the clandestine and outrageous campaign to drag America into WWII.